The Festival of the Trays







The Festival of the Trays (The Feast of the Holy Spirit) / Festa dos Tabuleiros (Festa do Divino Espírito Santo)

The city had a magical atmosphere; each street of the historic center was decorated with paper flowers. The festival included various procession, the most beautiful one was held on Sunday when seven hundred girls carried on their heads tabuleiros, baskets made of bread and flowers, weighing 15-20 kg. Some of them smiled, some were obviously suffering and clenching their teeth and others walked gracefully like a swan with one arm akimbo.

The small town of Tomar, 140 km from Lisbon, was once the seat of the Order of the Templars. The monumental Convent of the Order of Christ, which they left behind, today belongs to the most important European monuments and it is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

However, a bigger attraction is the traditional thanksgiving for a good harvest. Festa dos tabuleiros, which originated in pagan rituals, has been going on for seven hundred years in almost unchanged form. Locals prepare for it a few months in advance not only for themselves but also to overwhelm the half a million visitors that are coming up in July. I experienced it in 2015.

I knew that Tomar would be beautifully decorated, but the reality exceeded all my expectations. Each street of the historic center was wrapped with paper flowers. With hundreds of flowers! Here the hydrangeas curled around the windows, there the branch of tender roses crawled on the facade. There was plenty of tulips, marguerites, peonies, water lilies, daffodils or geraniums. The irises were indistinguishable from the real ones, elaborated in all the details. People of Tomar could maintain themselves very well only by producing flowers and exporting them; they have enough experience: a family of four is able to produce up to ten thousand pieces in five months! What was left, they offered to the tourists as a souvenir.

The large leaves created a green jungle over the streets and a pleasant shadow in the hot weather. When I took a nap in the afternoon, they whispered under my window like singing a lullaby.  

The festival includes several traditional ceremonies and parades. The first one, O Cortejo das Coroas (the Procession of the Crowns) is held already on Easter Sunday. It is devoted to seven crowns, symbolizing seven days of week, the seventh day when God rested after he had finished his work of creation and the Seven gifts of the Holy spirit.

The O Cortejo dos Rapazes (the Procession of the Boys) follows, but in spite of the name, there are also girls. It was introduced in 1991, so that the kids can learn the tradition. The youngest ones may not even know what's going on around them, but they already carry their baskets and feel important.

I came for the subsequent O Cortejo to Mordomo, (the Butlers procession). The butlers symbolically leaded three decorated oxen. In the past, they used to be killed after the parade and the meat was distributed among the poor people, but now they are not in danger. The oxen, with flowers on their foreheads resembling circus ponies, walked peacefully behind their masters as if they knew it.

After them, the carts with local bigwigs appeared, a music band and riders on horses. The animals were scared of crowd, but the Portuguese, known for their masterfulness, had them under perfect control. Each horse performed a different step - walk, trot or canter, one looked as if dancing Charleston and the last one went on a diagonal, moving sideways and forward at the same time.  

People welcomed the procession, clapped and showered it with confetti. Occasionally, someone fired a solemn salvo and then a huge flock of pigeons took off from the rooftops. They circled three times round and finally settled; to be expel again after few minutes into the air. It was a miracle that I found on my dress only one ,,mark”!

On Saturday, the so-called ,,Partial parades”, Cortejos Parciais, were held, where the individual districts of the region finally presented their tabuleiros, the bread-flower trays. Their base is a basket covered with a linen cloth, in which five or six canes are fixed. On them, thirty loaves of bread are set, each weighing 0,5 kg. They alternate with the rows of various paper flowers, leaves and ears of corn according to the owner's fantasy. At the top, there is a crown decorated with a dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit, the Cross of Christ or armillary sphere, a symbol of the historical Portuguese maritime expansion. The finished tabuleiro is high as a girl who carries it and weighs around 15 - 20 kilograms.

On the morning, the trucks brought in all the participants and their baskets. While the people on the streets applauded, they drove through the city and precisely at 10 am began to parade. That was a very pleasant surprise from Portuguese, because being in the south of Europe I expected at least one-hour delay.

Girls were in a virgin white dresses (representing purity), their waists wrapped with a ribbon of the same color as their male ,assistant’s” tie. The men help with loading on the head, maintaining balance, and when it is necessary, even to scratch a nose or to drink.

This time, the route was short; just along the main street and upstairs into the big park Mata Nacional dos Sete Montes, where they laid down the baskets. Everyone could go and see the exhibition, praise tabuleiros of his district and criticize a competition. It wasn’t a contest, but it's nice to be sure that "ours are the most beautiful".

In the evening, the streets were congested and the temperature dropped sharply, but the city came to life. The speakers played catchy Portuguese melodies. In front of the restaurants, men roasted a leitão, the piglets and the air was filled with a good smell. People sipped wine and if they felt like dancing on the street, they did it, no problem. Nevertheless, I didn’t see any drunk and even in the crowd they were all very considerate. I learned a new, quite frequented Portuguese word disculpe - sorry.

After midnight, there was a firework over the Nabão river, or rather a musical-light show. They played the Hallelujah, the Swan Lake and the Minute Waltz, shooting at the rhythm.  Golden snakes, rotating comets and a rain of sparkles flew to the sky. I had goosebumps, maybe because it was very cold, maybe because of this magic experience...

On Sunday morning, I left the hotel at 10 am and discovered in shock that the sidewalks were already filled with thousands of people waiting for the main procession, which should start at 4 pm! The Portuguese are obviously a patient nation. In the thirty-five-degree heat, they took nap, picnicked, read, embroidered, or just chatted, both young and old. The sellers of hats, water and folding chairs kept walking up and down between them and offering their goods. Six hours of waiting? No problem! Well, the festival takes place only once in four years, so it's probably worth it to sit down and get a top-class view.

Exactly at 4 pm, the gate of the park opened and seven hundreds girls, each one with a tabuleiro on the top of her head, began to come out in two lines. Along the whole 5,5 km parade route of the Cortejo dos Tabuleiros they were accompanied by a frenetic applause. Some of them were smiling and posing, some were obviously suffering and clenching their teeth and others walked gracefully like a swan with one arm akimbo.

The most critical places were the bridges - the gusts of the wind have almost blown me, so imagine what a blast can do with such a high basket. The men did what they could, they helped, held on, adjusted. Occasionally people shrieked from fear when they saw a tabuleiro slipping out of the soft wheel on which girls laid it. Some of them didn’t manage to balance it, eventually they ignominiously failed. They gave up and handed over the baskets to their partners.

Well, ignominiously... When I later tried it, I changed my mind. When they put it on my head, my neck was pressed to my chest, I couldn’t even straighten out, and it looked like a leaning tower of Pisa. I wouldn’t handle the 5,5 km parade even if they promised me a million. The Portuguese girls had practiced it since January, but I still don’t get how they managed. Hat's off to them!

The pairs gradually gathered on the black-and-white Praça da República square in front of the Church of Saint John the Baptist. It was the most beautiful moment, swirling of the colors, when the districts took stand on the exact places so that everybody could fit. The group of yellow tabuleiros shone like sun, red ones with wild poppies were lovely, those with birds of paradise original and perhaps the most beautiful were baskets with crowns wrapped in white flowers. More and more were coming, blue, green, pink, all of them floated high above the heads of the audience until the whole space was full. Finally, the girls could relieve and put down a heavy burden for half an hour and listen to the open-air Mass.

The festival is so popular that even the Prime Minister or the President of Portugal use to come. The first one was awaited, but, unfortunately, he had to give priority to the Brussels meeting on the Greek crisis. Bad luck.

After the priest's blessing of the trays, all the girls at once put the tabuleiros again on their heads and slowly left the square. The procession continued. They wandered through the city like an endless colorful snake; often in a shower of flowers. They passed through the main street, decorated with flags and red-gold quilts, hanging out of the windows and then they turned back to the river. The crowd applauded again and the spectators sitting on a roof threw on pairs a handful of petals that floated around us...

The last part of the festival is O Bodo or the Monday distribution of “Pêza” (sacred bread, meat and wine). The flower-garlanded oxen carrying the ornate carts set out for the last journey to the churches, where the food was distributed to the poorest families. They also got some loaves from the disassembled tabuleiros, but the girls kept most of them to be protected from disease throughout the year.

I also bought a miniature one. The Portuguese have a good habit: the scholars are involved in the production of souvenirs that are then offered in shops and when someone buys them, the money go to the children. Well, I was happy to support them and I hope they will continue in their ancestors' traditions and Festa dos tabuleiros will not cease to exist so soon... See you in 2019!


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